SAN FRANCISCO – After the Cincinnati Reds completed a winless homestand, holders of the worst record in the National League, Graham Ashcraft offered a glimmer of hope for the future.
Ashcraft, a 24-year-old right-hander, may have the best start of his young career and lifted the Reds to a 4-2 win in their series opener on Friday against the San Francisco Giants. He gave up two runs in eight innings and struckout a career-high of eight batters.
“He was incredible tonight, man,” said Reds catcher Aramis Garcia. “There were some knives he was throwing — literally, as I’m catching them, I’m like, ‘oh my god.’ Some of the cutters he threw at these left-handers were literally 98-mph sliders. It was unbelievable.”
Ashcraft’s dominant performance ended the Reds’ seven-game streak. The Reds have a 24-46 record, the second-worst 70-game start in franchise history. The 1934 Reds team, which ended with 99 losses, had the worst start at 23-46-1.
Developing pitching is key to the Reds’ rebuilding efforts and Ashcraft continues to show why he’s a pitcher to build around. His knife, which he holds like a four-seam fastball, is like a video game cheat code.
“It just doesn’t get much better than what he did tonight,” said Reds manager David Bell. “Definitely attacking the zone, no walks, lots of groundballs. Cut, sink, up, down, just attack in every way possible. Just really impressive.”
Ashcraft gave up 17 hits and 10 runs in his two previous appearances before Friday. All rookies have a learning curve and Ashcraft felt he was too dependent on his slider on his last start. The game plan against the Giants was to rely on his blade until their batters forced him to throw something else.
The result: six of his eight strikeouts came through his cutter and he caused 12 groundouts.
Another part of Ashcraft’s success, Garcia said, was his ability to establish his sinker early in the game. It was his second time facing the Giants and hitters had to respect the sinker instead of choosing between his cutter and slider.
“The slider is slower, so if they see it enough it will hit once it misses the center,” Ashcraft said. “It’s a little harder to hit — I mean I’m not a hitter — but it’s a little harder to hit a cutter and a 97-mph sinker than it is to hit an 87-mph slider. “
What stands out to teammates is Ashcraft’s confidence. He knows how hard it is to hit his knife. There are not many starting pitchers in the world who can match the speed of his cutter.
He challenged experienced batters to try and hit his blade. He struckout Brandon Belt in an all-cutter quadruple in the seventh inning. Two batters later, Brandon Crawford was on the receiving end of four straight cutters and blew twice. Ashcraft screamed after the inning-ending strikeout.
“Trust is everything,” Garcia said. “You can feel it when you catch him. You can feel it when you watch him in the dugout. When you can climb the mound or step into the penalty area with confidence, it makes a difference.”
The Giants produced back-to-back groundball singles against Ashcraft to open the eighth inning. Reliever Joel Kuhnel started to get hot in the bullpen, but Bell wanted to give Ashcraft every chance to get out.
“He’d been great all night,” Bell said. “That can simplify the thinking process a bit there.”
Ashcraft topped the lineup for the fourth time with a pitch count of nearly 100, driving a comebacker to the mound to start a double play. The Giants added a run on a two-out bloop single and Ashcraft’s last out flied into the warning lane, but the rookie rewarded his manager’s confidence.
“I came in after that and I was like ‘one more’ and he said ‘I can’t let you’,” Ashcraft said of his conversation with Bell after the eighth inning. “I was like, ‘I understand,’ but I wanted to go back.”
Ashcraft gave up six hits and three of them came in his last inning. He did not spend walks. He threw 104 pitches, 70 strikes. He is seven starts in his major league career and his teammates are already expecting a start like Friday from him.
“(Hunter) Strickland, last night we hang out and he says, ‘You go eight and I’m going in and I’m going to shut it out,'” Ashcraft said. “That’s what happened.”
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Reds score: Graham Ashcraft, Nick Senzel lead road win vs. Giants